Tilting at windmills

I have the dim neighbor.  Anybody got a spare horse?

Dear Word Detective:  I don’t know why, but lately I’ve been unable to rid my consciousness of the phrase “tilting at windmills.”  Unable to, and hardly more willing to, find it anywhere, I turn to you and your wonderful staff for help. — Richard Clow.

That’s a good question, but I’m afraid my wonderful staff won’t be of much help, as they are occupied (quite literally) at the moment by an infestation of fleas.  Gus the Cat is perched atop the Frigidaire scratching furiously, and Pokie the Dog is apparently so intent on chewing her tail that she hasn’t answered the phone all week.  But I’ll do my best to carry on without them.

“To tilt at windmills” is a venerable English idiom meaning to pursue an unrealistic,  impractical, or impossible goal, or to battle imaginary enemies.  In current usage, “tilting at windmills” carries connotations of engaging in a noble but unrealistic (usually wildly unrealistic) effort, an endeavor which may garner the admiration of onlookers but which usually strikes other people as delusional (“Rather eccentric … inclined to tilt at windmills,” Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile, 1937).  The phrase is especially popular in the US media during the presidential election season every four years, when at least two or three candidates pop up who have something to say but exactly zero chances of actually winning.

The first occurrence of this phrase found in print so far (in the form “fight with windmills”) dates to 1644, which is remarkable because the source of the phrase had first been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, and in Spanish to boot.  The relative rapidity of the spread of the phrase in English is a tribute to the enormous popularity of its source, the novel “Don Quixote” (in full, “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha”) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in English in 1620.   In Cervantes’ story, a retired eccentric obsessed with the ideals of medieval chivalry imagines himself a knight and sets out on a quest for adventure, which is made considerably more dramatic by the fact that “Don Quixote” (as the hero has dubbed himself) misinterprets just about everything he encounters.  In the relevant passage early on in Quixote’s sojourn, he and his companion Sancho Panza (a dim neighbor he has recruited as his squire) encounter some windmills, which Don Quixote charges on his horse, his knight’s lance extended, believing them to be not windmills, but malevolent giants.

Had they actually been giants, of course, Quixote’s effort would have been noble but probably futile.  The fact that they were actually windmills made the episode a perfect metaphor for an effort that is noble and futile but also deluded and a bit silly.  “Tilt” in the phrase “tilting at windmills” is an antiquated sense of the verb “to tilt” meaning “to engage in combat,” specifically for two mounted knights to charge each other with lances extended.

The enduring popularity of “Don Quixote” is also the source of our English adjective “quixotic” (usually pronounced “kwik-SAH-tik,” in contrast to “Quixote,” which is usually pronounced “kee-HOH-tee”).  “Quixotic,” as you would expect, means “foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals,” but also carries connotations of “unpredictable” and “fickle.”

3 comments on this post.
  1. Nikki:

    who wrote this? i’d like to quote it in an essay.

  2. Castor:

    …. “kwik-SAH-tik” in American; “kwik-soh-tik” In real English.

  3. Richard:

    I’m unsure if I ever properly thanked you, and your cats, for your help in understanding this phrase. Seems nowadays, one can type anything in and get an answer. But, you were my only reliable source back then. Thanks, very much, for being there!

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